Rhythm and balance.
From riders going beginner novice to riders aiming at the upper levels, those tenets ruled every part of cross-country day at William Fox-Pitt’s two-day clinic last week at Zaragoza Acres in Jeffersonton, Virginia. If a rider has rhythm and balance, the three-time British Olympic medalist said, the striding doesn’t matter as much. With the right rhythm and balance, a horse can get over a fence from almost any distance.
“I don’t care about the striding, if it’s long or deep. I care if you change the rhythm,” he said.
“If you’ve got rhythm and balance and straightness, life is so much easier,” he said. “I always carry on about that, but if a horse has got all that, he can jump a jump from pretty much anywhere.”
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The clinic, which was the last of three held in the U.S., was a rare opportunity for riders here to learn from one of the biggest stars of the sport and a stalwart of British eventing. Along with three Olympic medals, Fox-PItt has the distinction of having won five of the world’s seven five-star events: Burghley (six times), Kentucky (four times), Pau (twice), Badminton (twice) and Luhmühlen.
In his Virginia clinic, he started each group by asking them to warm up on a slight slope. He spends time doing flatwork on gentle terrain with all his mounts, he said, from green beans to five-star veterans, because it helps teach the horse—and rider—how to find a proper balance.
“On a slope they have better engagement, better self-carriage,” he said. “School on a slope as much as you can, and on the flat you’ll find you have more.”
Once the horses had warmed up in walk, trot and canter, Fox-Pitt directed them to begin jumping small fences—at the trot.
“I like to start in trot, because in trot the horse has to think. He gets things a bit wrong sometimes, but he’s got time to get it right,” he said. “He’s got time to sort out his balance, and we have to react; we have to go with the horse. We’re not allowed to hope for a long one or hope for a late one; we’ve got to go with it. That’s very important.
“I always say,” he added, ” if anyone wants to feel like they can’t ride, make them jump out of trot.”
During the warmup, his rule regarding refusals was simple: Don’t. Make the horse go forward. None of the little logs and such were too big to jump from a walk or standstill. The same principle carried through to fences without height, ditches and down banks. Riders were instructed to kick on and find a way to the other side.
“If they stop they have to jump from a standstill,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a second go in my vocab. Eventing is not about second goes. Of course things do go wrong, but the horse has to absolutely think, when he’s coming into a fence … ‘How am I going to do it?’ not ‘Am I going to do it?’ [but] ‘How?’ And we’ve got to train up your young horses from the very beginning. It’s very important that we have that is instilled in them.”
Throughout the day he kept the sessions straightforward. Instead of challenging riders with huge fences, Fox-Pitt challenged them with jumps set into undulating terrain, asking them to keep themselves quiet in the tack while supporting their horse.
“It’s not always about your balance with the horse,” he said. “It’s about your own independent balance.” A rider who is balanced in the tack can stay out of a horse’s way when the terrain is varied or a scrambly moment happens.
Fox-Pitt encouraged most of the riders to use a neck strap, especially if they were riding a greener mount. He uses one on all his mounts, he said, and extolled the virtues of having something easy to grab onto. He also recommended several riders shorten their stirrups for a more effective leg.
“You want a bent leg that’s there that we can be in a balance and do it. If you’ve got a longer leg, and we’re floating around, we lose our balance much more quickly,” he said. “You don’t see good jockeys and good riders with long stirrups.”
The first challenge of each session was what Fox-Pitt dubbed “lumps and bumps”—jumps set around a hollow in the ground. With so many events taking place on flatter ground, particularly in the United States, Fox-Pitt emphasized the importance of working on undulating terrain. By criss-crossing around the space, even the less experienced pairs had the opportunity to learn how to work over fences where the grade of the ground changed rapidly.
Fox-Pitt was unconcerned about how many strides riders got between related fences. He pointed out that, as long as the rider kept the rhythm and was definite with their eyes and body about where the horse needed to be, a successful line could look different for each pair.
The next step was to work on ditches. The more experienced groups jumped coffin questions on an S-curve, which forced riders to gain control of their horse’s body. Fox-Pitt encouraged them to look for their next fence early, because if they wait until they’ve landed off the previous element, they’re already too late.
“The coffin is hard enough on a straight line,” he said. “On an S-curve it’s about really getting shoulder control.”
Each group finished by schooling the water. No matter what level they compete at, he told them all to get their feet wet first and explained that they needed to keep their canter short and bouncy.
“The golden rule for water is how many strides can I make,” he said. “I don’t want the horses to go long and splat.”
Check back tomorrow at www.coth.com for coverage of the second day of the William Fox-Pitt clinic, which continued with show jumping exercises focused on increasing rideability and discipline.